Read Raw Ltd
Promoting Creative Writing in Scotland
What first inspired you to write?
I’m an only child, and I always loved reading. When I was growing up, the worlds I found inside books were as much part of my life as the real world around me. I wanted to get closer to those worlds too, to find a magic wardrobe or a Psammead or a secret garden (though not perhaps to go through the looking glass as I found it quite scary). So almost as soon as I could write, I wrote stories. I wrote all the way through my teenage years but then stopped when I was at university, probably because I didn’t have any time between studying, working and misbehaving. But the stories came back after I’d graduated, albeit with fewer talking animals.
What inspires you now?
The unpleasant thought of my own mortality. I thought that was a joke, but actually I do mean it seriously, though not in the sense that I want to leave a legacy of remaindered paperbacks. I think I come back to core ideas, about memory and how the past affects the present, but I’m also increasingly interested in landscape; urban, natural, industrial and post-industrial. Part of my last novel, Spin Cycle, is set in the1960s, and that’s a period I plan to return to, probably in my next novel. It’s like asking, how long is a bit of string? Strangely, like most writers I also find money very inspiring.
What advice would you give to a new writer?
There aren’t any magic formulae unfortunately, so the same advice they’ve heard a million times before. Read lots, and read closely. Gorge yourself on books of differents kinds. Write lots too, and don’t get disheartened when your first drafts don’t live up to your wonderful ideas. That’s why they’re first drafts. Try not to feel silly or inhibited, or that there’s something else you should be doing instead. And when you’ve got some work together, get an honest opinion, either through a writing group or a manuscript appraisal service such as that run by Hi-Arts.
What are you writing?
I’m finishing off a novel, which was called Play Dead, but now someone else has used that title for a crime bestseller. It’s been a difficult book but I’m happy with the writing, insomuch as I’m ever happy with my writing. It’s at the stage that either I finish it, or it finishes me. Luckily I’ve just been awarded one of the Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowships, for which I’m very grateful, so I’ll be heading off to France in couple of weeks to write. That should give me the headspace and creative succour to get it done.
What are you reading now?
I tend to read a few books at once, which is probably a bad habit. I’ve just finished Janice Galloway’s memoir This Is Not About Me, and it’s the first book I’ve read in ages that kept me turning the pages right into the wee small hours. It’s absolutely compelling, so detailed and well-observed, but without a scrap of self-pity or accusation. My poetry book at the moment is A Sleepwalk on the Severn by Alice Oswald, which explores the effect of moonrise on various characters, not least the moon herself. I started rereading it straight away. And I’m about to start Fighting It by Regi Claire. Her short stories are always so beautifully written.
Who is your favorite literary character?
That’s a tricky one! It’s easier to say who I can’t stand. Emma Bovary drives me mad. It’s such an amazing piece of writing, but oh my goodness I just want to slap her.
What future projects do you have planned?
Exciting stuff! Or new things for me, anyway. I’m about to start writing a play. It’s called Old Girls, and it’s about two very elderly ladies who decide to commit armed robbery. It should be on at Oran Mor in Glasgow in the autumn, if all goes according to plan. I’m also working with a composer, so something should come of that by next year. Writing can be such a solitary slog, and it’s really nice to have the chance to approach ideas in a more collaborative way.
What interests do you have outside of writing?
I’m interested in the visual arts, especially photography, and I like going to the theatre. But because I’m at my desk so much of the time, I love getting out into the countryside or going up north. Last weekend I got very excited when I saw peregine falcons nesting at New Lanark, so perhaps I have an inner twitcher who’s desperate to get out! I despise sport but when I’m writing I tend to build up a bit of excess energy so I go swimming and I’ve just taken up yoga as well. I’m not very good at it, but it’s fun, and it’s either that or diving head first into a bucket of wine. That all makes me sound very sensible, doesn’t it? I should have just said that my chronic drug habit takes up most of my time . . .
Any last words of wisdom?
Don’t eat anything bigger than your head. Not even when your writing is going badly.
My novels are called Negative Space and Spin Cycle, and both are published by Picador.
A fierce and vivid story of grief and the search for identity,Negative Space won a Betty Trask Award and was shortlisted for the Saltire First Scottish Book of the Year Award and longlisted for the SAC Book of the Year Award.
The Glasgow launderette has been a sanctuary for Agnes, Myrna and Siobhan, binding them together in tentative, fragile friendships. But when all three are forced to make vital choices, their lives become caught in a spin which whirls events towards a shocking conclusion . . . Spin Cycle is a deep, dark and dirty story of furtive desires – and their consequences.
You’ll find short stories here and there too. Recent ones include:
· ‘Pipe Dreams of a Post-Industrial Arcadia’
SHIFTS, The Lighthouse, October 2007
· ‘Outside the Town’
The Research Club, Chroma (Black & White), August 2007
· ‘The Secret Life of Dads’
New Writing 15, British Council/Granta, June 2007
· ‘Play Dead’
The Antigonish Review #146 (Canada), autumn 2006
(available online at http://www.antigonishreview.com/bi-146/146-fiction-zoe-strachan.html)
· ‘After They’d Gone’
Latitude, Anvil Press(UK/Philippines), May 2006
(originally broadcast on BBC Radio 4)
Ted Samson was not a child usually given to flights of fancy. He enjoyed facts, especially those gleaned from TheBig Book of Facts for Boys. As he walked home from school he kept to the pavement while his classmates shrieked through the rubble of a bombed out house, mimicking the noise of sirens and anti-aircraft fire.
“Finders keepers,” came a shriek from Ted’s best friend, Albert Sim. It was a phrase often heard in those days of rationing and shortages but when Bert offered Ted half of the Highland Chew he’d scavenged from the debris, Ted refused.
“But it’s a miracle!” Bert announced. “Still in its wrapper and everything.”
“Nah, you have it.”
“Suit yourself. Tell you what, if I was the people that make them I’d write on the wrapper that they’re invincible . . . neeeeeaaaalll, ack ack ack ack . . .”
Albert’s acks were truncated by the gobstopper-like properties of the Highland Chew. Ted, with his ten-year-old sense of morality, had deduced that even if the normal inhabitants of 15 Waverley Terrace had been killed, their relatives might return at any moment. And if he was in the position of Coming Back from the Front, as it was confusingly known, Ted reckoned that he might be grateful for the sustenance of a Highland Chew. And extremely angry that some snotty-nosed schoolboy had deprived him of it.
While Ted doubted that finders really were keepers, he had absolute faith in the other half of the equation: that losers were weepers. As if to prove the point, when he got home his mother described the sorry state of Duncan MacPherson: “greeting like a wean, they say, and although he wasn’t above causing a bit of trouble you wouldn’t wish that on anyone.” Duncan had just returned from military hospital after losing one of his legs in Belgium.
“Which one?” Ted asked.
“Oh for goodness sake Ted, what does it matter which one? He’s only nineteen and that’s him on the scrapheap.”
That night Ted dreamed that Duncan MacPherson was looking for his errant leg, sorting through a scrapheap not dissimilar to the wreckage of number 15. Various limbs like those of shop dummies were lying around but none seemed quite right, and of course Duncan was somewhat hindered by having to hop. He was also hindered by a quantity of ferrets scurrying under his one remaining foot; before he got his papers, Duncan had been a great one for ferrets. Ted’s dad was in the dream too, hovering by the edge of the scrapheap, his uniform covered in dust.
Ted often wondered if the things that went missing had any idea at all about the trouble they caused at home.
After school the next day, Ted continued past his own house and along to the MacPhersons’. It was somewhere he’d been avoiding, but he felt he owed it to Duncan to discover whether he used a pair of crutches or had been fitted with a wooden leg like that of Long John Silver. But Duncan was nowhere to be seen; and certainly not hopping about unaided, like a Jack escaped from its Box, as Ted had secretly hoped. The front curtains of the MacPherson house were closed, and as Ted passed he noticed Mrs MacPherson in her neighbour’s garden. He slowed his pace but kept his head down, ears wagging. He’d had a run in with Mrs MacPherson before, and was not at all keen to remind her of it.
“Aye, he won’t come out,” she was saying. “Can’t even bear the notion of someone looking in and seeing him. And the nightmares . . . it’s breaking my heart.”
The neighbour made sympathetic noises. “But he’s a hero, that’s for sure. Our very own war hero in the street, eh?”
“Ha! He’s no more a hero than me or you. Never even fired at the enemy. Poor bugger was loading his gun when he shot himself in the foot. Gangrene.”
Gangrene. Gaaaangreeene. Ted could almost taste the unfamiliar word, and hurried home to look it up, whereupon he was gratified, if slightly nauseated, by the definition. As he put the dictionary back on the shelf where it sat proudly next to The Big Book of Facts for Boys, he heard a noise from upstairs. He’d been so focussed on gangrene – and its delicious adjective, gangrenous - that he hadn’t called out to his mother when he came in the door. Now there seemed to be a disturbance going on, bangs and thuds as though cupboards were being opened and the contents of drawers poured onto the floor.
For one awful second, Ted thought that the Germans had invaded. Then he heard a familiar voice, and reasoned that if the Nazis had decided to capture the upstairs of number 2 Waverley Terrace, then Winston Churchill probably had more deadly weapons to throw at them than Ted’s Auntie Rena.
“Calm down May,” she was saying, in a tone of voice which made Ted think she might have given Hitler a run for his money after all. “It’s easy done if the chain snaps, just slips off without you noticing. You’ll have lost it outside somewhere.”
“It’s not lost,” Ted’s mother shouted back. “It’s just missing. I’ll find it again, I will.”
Rena softened a little, “Don’t give yourself a hard time dear, George’d understand. Everyone loses things sometimes.”
“How many times do I have to tell you? It isn’t lost. It’s missing.”
Ted’s mother was taciturn for the rest of the evening. He attempted to distract her from the loss of her favourite necklace by reciting interesting snippets from The Big Book of Facts for Boys:
The wingspan of the golden eagle is between 6 and a half and 7 and a half feet.
The flag of Switzerland is a white cross on a red ground.
The longest a man can survive without water is . . .
“Oh do be quiet Ted love, there’s a good boy.”
One fact that he did not dare mention, however, was that missing and lost meant the same thing. It said so in the Dictionary of Synonyms at school. In black and white. He’d looked it up. Missing equals lost, disappeared, gone . . .
Ted’s father had come home on leave once since the war started. It had not been an entirely successful visit, its more pleasant aspects overshadowed by the use of part of George Samson’s military apparel – namely, his belt – on an area of Ted Samson’s bare anatomy - namely, his bottom.
“I hope you’re happy now Ted,” his mother had said. “Dragging your father all the way back here just to punish you. Well, you brought this on yourself. You made it happen.”
Brought this on yourself, brought this on yourself . . . all night long the words echoed in Ted’s ears. He couldn’t sleep, kept turning it over in his mind. At the time it had seemed so unfair: he’d only been trying to help, by returning something Duncan had lost. But like everything else in the world, it was a question of cause and effect. He’d brought it on himself, his mother had said, it was cause and effect. A scientific principle. The birds started chirruping the dawn, and still Ted was thinking, he’d made it happen, he’d brought it on himself.
When he got up that morning he had reached a decision. If he had made it happen once, perhaps he could do so again. Cause and effect. But he was going to need Albert’s help, or rather the help of Albert’s brother.
“What’s it worth?” Albert’s brother asked, when they met in his garden shed that afternoon.
“I don’t have any money,” Ted admitted.
“Swapsies then. What’ve you got?”
Ted hesitated. “My birthday sweets.”
Albert’s brother extracted a liquorice shoelace from his pocket and draped it lazily into his mouth from above.
Ted racked his brains. “A football. I’ve got a football.”
Albert’s brother shook his head. Ted hesitated. “There is one more thing.”
And so the trade took place. As Ted let himself out of the shed, clutching the squirming sackcloth bag firmly to his chest, he heard Bert’s brother say, “Hey, did you know that the wingspan of the golden eagle is . . .”
Sniffing a little, Ted walked towards the MacPhersons’ house. He dithered for a second, then marched up the front step and rapped firmly on the door.
“I’m sorry Mrs MacPherson,” he whispered, just as her face turned purple with recognition.
“Not again you little b . . .” she shouted but it was too late. Ted had opened the bag and thrust its contents towards her.
Mrs MacPherson knocked Ted clean off the doorstep as she flew past him and out into the front garden. Blood was pouring down her cheek and Bert’s brother’s prize ferret was flapping from her eyebrow like a creature possessed. Her arms were whirlygigging in exactly the same way they had the last time a ferret had jumped from Ted Samson’s arms to her face: the afternoon his father arrived home on leave. The one and only time he gave Ted a hiding. One which, as his mother said, he’d brought upon himself. Cause and effect.
“Duncan!” Mrs MacPherson screamed. “Duncan, do something!”
Ted heard a smash from the house as though someone had knocked over a vase.
“I’m coming Mum!” The door slammed open and Duncan MacPherson appeared, vaulting down the front steps on a pair of wooden crutches, his right leg missing from the thigh down.
“Get it off me Duncan, get it off me!”
“Oh not again Mum! Stay still, I can’t get hold of it unless you stay still.”
Duncan propped his elbows awkwardly on his crutches. “Come on son, easy does it,” he whispered as he slipped his hand round the ferret, all the while stroking its head gently with his index finger. “Let go now, that’s a boy . . .”
Mrs MacPherson leapt back as soon as her eyebrow was released and Duncan stuffed the ferret into his shirt pocket and held it there, where it poked its head out and twitched its nose as though it was wondering what all the fuss was about.
“You all right Mum?” Ted heard Duncan ask. “Lovely animal this. Bet it’s a demon rabbiter, teeth like that.”
“Lovely animal indeed,” Mrs MacPherson said, mopping her face with her handkerchief. “I’d throttle the little blighter. And I’d throttle that little blighter and all, tormenting me like that, it’s persecution so it is . . .”
Ted could see his own mother running down the street towards them. He squeezed his eyes shut and let Mrs MacPherson’s tirade wash over him as he waited for another voice, for a hand on his shoulder, for the noise of an army-issue belt being pulled from its loops.
“Mrs MacPherson,” Ted’s mum said as she crouched down beside him, “Please shut up for a minute, will you?”
Through a thick cloud of snot, Ted whispered, “Now Dad’ll have to come back to punish me again.”
His mother put her arms around him and hugged him close.
“Oh Ted, love, your father’s not coming back.”
A horrible wheezing feeling originated in Ted’s chest. He opened his eyes.
“But he isn’t lost, he’s missing.”
He looked down and saw that crumpled in his mum’s hand was a typewritten letter, just like the one that had informed them that George Samson was missing in action.
“We’re not going to find him now, darling.”
The suffocating feeling spread until Ted felt his ribcage might explode. The noise of Bert mimicking the ack-ack guns rang in his ears. He managed to force out one question, quietly so that Duncan wouldn’t hear:
“Was it gangrene Mum, or was Dad a hero?”
But Ted’s mother didn’t have an answer to that.
Copyright © Zoe Strachan